Medieval Bridge over Exe
Medieval Bridge over Exe








Martin began his lecture by saying that this was the first talk for two years that he had been able to give to ‘real’ people – having spent time on Zoom looking at participants the size of postage stamps!


He said that he had spent the last thirty years restoring water wheels, doing some work for the National Trust, and restoration of Cricklepit Mill where the milling of flour still takes place.  He explained that there had been leats on Exe Island from early years and went on to define the words Gristing and Tucking.


Grist is the grain taken to the mills to be ground for making flour but what is produced at this stage is meal, not flour.  To make meal into flour it needs to be sifted to make it a finer grade.


Tucking, also known as fulling, is part of the cloth-making process.  [Martin contributed a chapter entitled “Exeter’s Fulling Mills in the Mid-Eighteenth Century” for The Exeter Cloth Dispatch Book, 1763-1765 edited by Todd Gray, published by the Devon & Cornwall Record Society, 2021 and for the sake of accuracy I will quote from his opening paragraphs]:


“Water-powered mills for fulling cloth are first recorded in England in the 1180s and in Devon from the early thirteenth century.  They were used both to scour newly-woven woollen cloth to remove oil and dirt as part of the finishing process, and to thicken the cloth by felting the fibres together.  Fulling was originally carried out by beating, treading or walking lengths of woven cloth in tubs of water with a scouring and cleansing agent.  This process made the cloth fit for use.”


Martin’s talk was illustrated with a wealth of maps, images and photos.  On an early map of Exeter he pointed out the area along the river which showed the location of the Higher and Lower Leats and the various mills from the Head Weir to the Quay.  He also explained the difference between overshot and undershot water wheels.


One image showed the Grant of Robert Courtenay to Nicholas Gervase to build between West Gate and the Quay.  To quote from Martin’s chapter in the book mentioned above:


 “In a document referring to the establishment of Cricklepit Mill, which is thought to date from around 1220, Robert de Courtenay, Earl of Devon, granted Nicholas Gervase all the water that Thomas Fullo (the fuller) held of him outside the West Gate, although whether Thomas used the water for washing cloth or for power is not known.”


He outlined the visit of Celia Fiennes in 1698 and her travel diary account of watching the fulling processes which she had witnessed.  And another in 1754 by Reinhold Angerstein, a Swedish industrial spy, when he visited Exeter.


Benjamin Donn’s map of 1765 shows the weirs and leats, and the racks for drying the cloth in the open air using tenter hooks.


An illustration from the City Chamber Map Book showed the locations of the Higher and Lower Leats and the weirs – from Head Weir (Upper and Lower Mills), Blackaller Weir, Bonhay Mills, Cuckingstool Mills, Martin’s/City Mills, Cricklepit Mill and Cricklepit Lower Mills, Lower Mills: Andrew’s and Palmer’s, Lower Mills: Weekes’, Edge Mill/Sommers’ Mill, plus the site of the water engine for raising water to the city, and the dryhouse. 


In 1640 a Mr Blackhall rented a site from the City and built a fulling mill, but it was stipulated that it was not to be a corn mill.  This privilege had been taken over from the Courtenays by the City Chamber.  Head Weir Mill was a fulling mill which was then turned into a paper mill and grist mill by Edward Pim.  In 1882 there was a serious fire and it was rebuilt.  It was taken over in 1919, then closed, and demolished in 1987.


Martin explained about the low fall of water between the weirs and the Exeter Water Engine, built in 1694 by Ambrose Crowley and others, which pumped water up to Waterbeer Street with a tank upstairs in a building which piped water to those who could afford it.  This was rebuilt by James Galsworthy who replaced the leaky wooden pipes with iron ones.  The City waterworks were eventually moved out to Pynes Mill.  In a garden behind the St Olave’s Hotel in Mary Arches Street, which had originally been Galsworthy’s home, can be found a plaque commemorating his achievement.


Martin showed the 1846 tithe map for St Edmund with Bonhay Mill at the start of the Lower Leat.  This was also known as Powhay Mill and had four water wheels.  The New/Cuckingstool/ Round Tree Mill was cut through by New Bridge Street.  There was an image of the Goad Insurance Plan of 1888 which showed Bodleys Iron Foundry.  City Mills was possibly there in Roman times, but there is no documentary information.  A photograph of 1950 showed J.Baker & Sons and French’s.  Another image by John Gendall showed a grist mill, and one of Richard Parker’s of a dry house at Lower Mills. 


Martin’s own photos showed Cricklepit Mill, Leat Terrace, and the Bishop Blaize pub.  In 1840 there was a new water wheel with cast iron rings by Bodley Brothers.  Squatters had occupied Cricklepit Mill and there was a fire after they had moved out.  Martin put in a tender for renovation and the water wheel was refurbished.


There was little evidence left of the three mills at Lower Mills which was investigated by Exeter Archaeology.  Edge Mill was a 16th century fulling mill which was then converted to a forge which had machinery similar to the Finch foundry.


Dyeing took place on Exe Island and Martin showed images of Claude Passavant’s cloth samples which appear in the Cloth Book mentioned above.  There is also a chapter in the book by Jenny Balfour Paul and Isabella Whitworth entitled “Cloth dyes and dyeing in the eighteenth century” which gives more information.


Martin said there were horse powered mills in Exe Island and also mentioned Exwick Mill owned by Mr Mallett in 1886 where flour milling was carried out using roller mills.  At Cricklepit a water turbine had been installed for hydro-electric generation.  In earlier times a leat captain was employed to ensure the fair use of water.  Martin ended his extremely interesting talk by saying that the history of water power was a long one.


[For a fuller understanding of Gristing, Tucking and the various mills on Exe Island, Martin’s chapter in the book quoted is warmly recommended.]


Sue Jackson

Most talks are now on the second Thursday of a month. All meetings start at 7 pm and are held at LEONARDO Hotel Exeter, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB.                                              The nearest car parks are the Triangle Car Park (at the rear of Leonardo Hotel) and the Summerland Gate Car Park (next to Vue Cinema). Parking at the Triangle Car Park is, unfortunately, no longer free in the evenings.

Print | Sitemap
© exeter local history society